7.07.2004

Neal Stephenson on Literary Discovery

From The Diamond Age:

[Nell, a young girl who felt misinformed when her book seemed to suggest a physical assault upon her mother's abusive boyfriend was necessary, said,] "I cannot help but feel that it misled me. It made me suppose that killing Burt would be a simple matter, and that it would improve my life...."

[The Constable, the man who sheltered and acted as father to her,] "Girl, you must admit that your life with Burt dead has been an improvement on your life with Burt alive.... Now, as to the fact that killing people is a more complicated business in practice than in theory, I will certainly concede your point. But I think it is not likely to be the only instance in which real life turns out to be more complicated than what you have seen in the book...."

"But of what use is the book then?"

"I suspect it is very useful. You want only the knack of translating its lessons into the real world." [The Constable demonstrates an amusing lesson that her martial arts training--"Martial arts means beating the bejesus out of people"--does not prepare her for people who do not fight fairly.] "Did [your book] teach that your mother's boyfriends would beat you up, and your mother not protect you?"

"No, sir, except insofar as it told me stories about people who did evil."

"People doing evil is a good lesson.... but your mother not protecting you from boyfriends--that has some subtlety, doesn't it?

"...the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people--and this is true whether or not they are well-educated--is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations--in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.

"[Your book] will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life. Your life up to this point has given you all of the experience you need to be intelligent, but you have to think about those experiences. If you do not think about them, you'll be psychologically unwell. If you do think about them, you will become not merely educated but intelligent."


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